AUGUSTA — Maine is on pace this year to surpass 2020 and set a record for wildfires, a disturbing trend caused by more people letting debris fires on their properties get out of control, the Maine Forest Service said.

“As of April 14 in 2020, we had 112 fires that had burned 94.7 acres,” Maine’s Chief Forest Ranger Bill Hamilton said Wednesday. “And so far this year we have had 163 fires that burned 122 acres. We’re quite a bit ahead of where we were last year.”

Forest service spokesman Jim Britt said that more people are burning debris in their yards and on their properties, the result of being stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic and having more time to do yard cleanup work.

“We are having the dual effect of more people burning debris and causing more fires because they are at home. These are symptoms of the pandemic,” he said. “More debris burning is contributing to the increase we are seeing in wildfires.”

Conditions also are ripe for wildfires to start. Britt said Maine is experiencing a dry spring because of a smaller snowpack and an earlier-than-usual melt. He said many parts of the state are 4 to 6 inches below normal rainfall totals.

As a result of the danger posed by wildfires, Gov. Janet Mills has proclaimed the week of April 18-24 as Wildfire Awareness Week. Mills, the Forest Service, and municipal fire departments are calling on everyone to use caution, to be mindful of windy weather, and to only use easily controlled locations for outside burns. Mainers also should check with their town hall, local fire department and the Maine Forest Service before burning debris. Mainers should never use propellants to conduct a burn.

Forest rangers have been kept busy this week battling wildfires at locations across the state. On Wednesday there was a wildfire in the Oxford County town of Woodstock. A small grass fire in Rome drew firefighters from three other communities. On Tuesday a wildfire broke out in the Lincoln County community of Whitefield, while firefighters from three communities knocked down a brush fire near the Augusta-Chelsea line. Brush fires also were reported in Dresden, Athens, Oakland and Starks, among other places.

And the season got off to an early start. The Maine Forest Service said a wildfire on Tryon Road in Harpswell threatened two structures and a boat before it was brought under control March 21. A brush fire in Arundel on March 21 damaged a mobile home. On March 5, forest rangers issued a summons for an individual who was burning debris without a permit in Addison. The fire got out of control and damaged a structure.

Every spring, disappearing snow and warmer temperatures combine to bring on the start of fire season in Maine, and judging by the wild land fires reported so far this year, 2021 is on pace to beat the record set by fires in 2020.

“Last year we had more fires than in any year in the past 35 years prior to that,” Hamilton said. “We had 1,157 fires that burned 1,042 acres.”

Hamilton said about 47 percent of the fires about which the Forest Service has data so far this year have been escaped debris fires. Equipment, camping, smoking, railroads, utilities or arson account for the remaining 53 percent.

This year, he said, the early spring contributed to the conditions that have fostered the fires across the region and across the state. The spring fire season begins as the snow line recedes from southern Maine and along the coast to western and northern Maine. The retreating snow uncovers the debris from last year’s growing season that was marked by moderate to severe droughts and rain in the fall.

“If you look at the last 365 days and compare where we would be normally, we’re several inches short of where we normally would be,” he said, citing data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We have been pretty dry, especially for the last month or so,” Michael Clair, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Gray office, said Tuesday.

A weather system pushing through New England will probably bring some rain or snow to central New Hampshire or southern Maine later this week, but it’s not expected to move very far north into the state.

In the longer term, the Climate Prediction Center is not currently seeing any strong indications of changing weather patterns through the end of June for either drier or wetter conditions.

“That’s just kind of a general outlook for the next few months,” he said.

So far, only a stretch of northern Oxford, Somerset and Franklin counties along the Canadian border are abnormally dry as well as coastal regions of Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox, Hancock and York counties through last week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“Just because we’re a little below normal now doesn’t mean we won’t make up for it in the next couple months,” Clair said. “If it’s part of a trend, it becomes a little more of a bigger deal.”

Even with the dry conditions, the wildfire danger report for most of the state was moderate across the state Wednesday. Those fire conditions govern whether open burn permits can be issued for people interested in burning brush.

Warden’s Report, an online service that municipal fire officials in many communities across Maine use to issue permits, has generated 15,350 permits so far this year. That’s an increase over last year at this time, when 12,000 permits had been issued, site developer and firefighter Gary Hickey II said.

“If Warden’s Report and (the Maine Forest Service) is issuing permits, and people follow the permit guidelines, it should be all right,” Dunbar said.

But inattention, particularly on days with windy conditions like Tuesday, can lead to fires getting out of control, he said.

“Sometimes they’ll go off and do something else, and it doesn’t take much for it to get out of control,” he said.

Hamilton said a recent long-range prediction he saw indicated temperatures about normal but below normal rainfall through August.

“The best summary I can give you is that we’re ahead of last year’s record-setting year at this point,” he said. “If we experience weather patterns like we did last year and the same kind of conditions, we can expect the same kind of fire activity we had last year.”

Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this story.


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